The first round of the NFL draft is a fantastic opportunity for NFL back offices. It’s often the culmination of months – sometimes even years – of work. It’s the result of leafing through tapes, scouting reports, moving around a bunch of magnets or post-its ad nauseum. And it all culminates in ten minutes with a name written on a form and handed in, just like that. There’s nothing to be distracted by, the entire focus of an organisation is on this one name, these ten minutes.
So how do you not get the name handed over in time?
In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings had the seventh pick in the NFL draft. Coming off the back of 5-11 and 6-10 seasons following that infamous 41-0 Championship game defeat in 2000, the roster had, shall we say, holes. And while you have ten minutes to make a pick now, in 2003 you had fifteen. It’s hard to muck it up, right? So what the hell happened?
What Are The Rules Around A Missed Pick?
The draft clock doesn’t work the way I expected, but it’s logical. It’s not a hard and fast clock that if you miss the deadline, you’re boned. Instead, it’s more a sort of “exclusive pick” clock. While you’re on the clock, no other team can make a pick. Once your clock’s run out, the next team’s clock starts. At that point, whoever makes the pick first between the two of you gets the pick. And if the other team makes the pick before you, the team after gets their clock going, so they can nip in before you.
In theory, if you look like you’re going to miss your pick, teams can just queue up, handing in the second they’re on the clock. You could fall a long way.
How Often Do Teams Miss First Round Picks?
Not very often. Let’s be frank, it’s pretty damn amateurish. Other than the story you’re about to hear about, I count twice in the 2000s. The most recent was the Ravens in 2011, who picked 27th instead of 26th. They claimed it was due to another team – the Bears – not calling in a trade. They drafted CB Jimmy Smith, and probably would have anyway. Moving from 26 to 27 is relatively incremental as far as these things go. Kansas City, the team that nipped ahead of them, drafted WR Jonathan Baldwin, who was – let’s face it – woeful.
The other missed pick wasn’t really a missed pick, and it also involved Minnesota. In 2002, 6th-overall Dallas were trying to trade down with 8th-overall Kansas City. They didn’t get the paperwork filed in time, and Minnesota were on the clock. Thing is, Minnesota weren’t ready to make their pick, so Dallas were still able to call the trade in, and Kansas City were able to draft Ryan Sims before Minnesota got themselves in gear. That the Vikings pick Bryant McKinnie had a better career than Sims, of course, did nothing to expunge the mild embarrassment of all at the time. (Nor did it, for that matter, when McKinnie held out well into October that year and didn’t take a snap until November.)
What Happened In 2003?
The Vikings, picking at number 7, seemed to have a relative balance on their draft board. Even with a few players under consideration, they were aware that QB Byron Leftwich was on the board. Leftwich had been an efficient and clutch player at Marshall, and was much in demand. This is an absolute classic trade-down scenario for a team in Minnesota’s situation.
And we know that Minnesota had offers. Per the ESPN report at the time, Baltimore, Jacksonville and New England were interested in the pick. While New England probably weren’t looking for Leftwich to replace their then fourth-year-pro Tom Brady, we know that Jacksonville and Baltimore were looking to him. And knowing Jacksonville were after him, Baltimore had made the juiciest offer, to jump ahead of the Jaguars, due to pick after Minnesota.
Thing is, the deal never went through.
In the confusion and recriminations that followed, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome claimed that they had indeed tried to call the trade in to the league official, but that no-one picked up the phone. The Vikings had confirmed the pick from their side with 32 seconds remaining, so this was probably a surprise to them. So, time expired on the Vikings’ pick without a trade agreed, and suddenly Jacksonville were on the clock. So what did they do? Drafted Byron Leftwich, of course, with barely a moment gone.
Alas, the story doesn’t end there. Because in the Carolina Panthers front office, someone was paying much more attention than Minnesota had been in 2002. So the Panthers, who had been picking 9th, went on the clock as soon as the Jags had handed in their pick. At which point the Vikings were still floundering, wondering what the hell had gone on. And so tackle Jordan Gross went to the Panthers at number 8, and the Vikings dropped two spots.
Thankfully, the Vikings realised what was going on quickly enough to beat the Ravens to the next pick, so they ended up drafting 9th overall, and selected defensive tackle Kevin Williams. They claimed Williams had been their target all along, but whether he was or not, they looked seriously foolish. As an addendum, although Baltimore didn’t consummate that trade with Minnesota, they drafted Terrell Suggs at number 10.
The Missed Draft Pick And The Retrospect-o-Scope
Either way you look at it, Minnesota lost a lot of “draft capital” (basically the comparative assumed value of draft picks they had) in this episode. Per the Jimmy Johnson draft chart (still, the most useful chart to understand trade values, despite the increased approach among more analytical teams to adopt a chart similar to Chase Stuart’s), they gave up 150 points of draft capital. That’s equivalent to pick 24 in the 3rd round, or 88th overall. In recent years that’s netted you some good players (Lardarius Webb, Danielle Hunter, Nick Foles) and some not so good (Corey Lemoinier, Johnny Patrick, Bruce Davis). It’s still a sizeable amount to give up. Although in this instance, the rumour is that Minnesota would have gained 4th and 6th round picks for the trade down with Baltimore, which would probably work out at a little less value?
Here’s the rub though. Those four players picked in that 7-10 run, in order. Jacksonville: Byron Leftwich, who never developed into a solid starter amid injuries and knack for throwing interceptions. Carolina: Jordan Gross, who made three Pro Bowlers later in his career as a good left tackle, but struggled early there. Still, decent pick. Minnesota: Kevin Williams, who recorded 21.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions in his first two years. Doubly impressive when you remember he was a defensive tackle. Williams made 6 Pro Bowls, was a five-time First Team All-Pro. If he misses out on the Hall of Fame, it’s mostly due to playing a now-unfashionable position. Baltimore: Terrell Suggs is still having a heck of a pass-rushing career. He has 114.5 sacks, including seven double-digit sack seasons. The remarkable thing is, the last of those was last year, in his age 35 season! Wow.
This is what’s so stupid about all this pontificating. The two teams who mucked up the draft-day trade ended up with the maybe-Hall-of-Fame players. The two who were on the ball and got their man, well, Gross panned out well in the end, but Leftwich didn’t! Minnesota looked foolish, and we all laughed at them, but sometimes the punchline isn’t where you expect it, and it’s funnier on second viewing when you get the reference.
Will Anyone Miss A First-Round Draft Pick In 2018?
It’s hard to imagine anyone making this mistake again. If you think a team would get crucified for this in 2003 – and believe me, they did – given the democratisation of media in light of social media, internet news, and the all-consuming, incessant coverage of the draft, god knows what would happen to the poor GM that misses his pick. But looking at the Vikings’ 2003 boob, it’s not a completely dissimilar situation.
Why? You’ve got a bunch of quarterbacks at the top of the draft, for which there will be many, many trade competing trade offers that they’ll have to choose between. Any team that gets paralysed and hunts around or hesitates too much when confirming a trade offer, that clock’s going to tick down. Will it happen? Probably not. Will it be uproariously hilarious if happens to any team but your own? You bet.